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"Washington Heights" tells the story of Carlos Ramirez, a young illustrator burning to escape the Latino neighborhood of the same name to make a splash in New York City's commercial downtown comic book scene. When his father, who owns a bodega in the Heights, is shot in a burglary attempt, Carlos is forced to put his dream on hold and run the store. In the process, he comes to understand that if he is to make it as a comic artist, he must engage with the community he comes from, take that experience back out into the world, and put it in his work. Written by
In 1973, Martin Scorsese revolutionized contemporary urban drama in film with "Mean Streets". Every movie about crime or blue-collar neighborhoods made since then--from "Godfather, Part II" onward--has owed much of its visual sensibilities, dialogue, and plot to Scorsese's early masterpiece. And the unfortunate side effect is that too many filmmakers try to rip it off almost completely (ex: "Sugar Hill", "Monument Ave."). "Washington Heights" is the latest of such travesties, and one of the worst I have seen.
The film is about a Carlos (screenwriter & producer Manny Perez), an aspiring comic book artist living in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City, his disapproving immigrant storekeeper father Eddie(Tomas Milian), and his stupid best friend Mickey (Danny Hoch). When Eddie gets shot by a robber, Carlos has to take in the old man and run the store for him, much to the chagrin of them both. Plus Mickey thinks all his problems will be solved if he can just scrape together $5000 to get to a bowling tournament in Vegas, all his problems will be over. If you remember Robert De Niro's character in "Mean Streets", then you can guess how Mickey gets the money and what happens to him.
As for Carlos, it is very hard to sympathize with this guy. He is angry all the time and is forever acting superior to his father, his girlfriend, his friends and his customers. And I've seen the artist son vs. the practical dad once too often in movies to be particularly affected by it. That part of the film is done more artfully than Neil Diamond's version of "The Jazz Singer", but not by much. The only truly interesting, likable character with interesting things to say is Eddie, the father. But he's hardly in the film.
Aside from the cliched script, there are several technical aspects of the film I didn't like. First, it was shot with hand-held video cameras, which gives the movie a "Blair Witch" feel: the colors are washed out, the picture is never completely in focus, and the motion of the camera-man's walking make the frame bob up and down all the time. Also the audio was rotten, so the dialogue was difficult to hear (although that may have just been a deficiency of the theater I saw the movie in). And it has all the usual flaws that "Dogma 95" fans find so endearing, but the rest of us can't stand: over-long silences followed by over-long improvised dramatic monologues, 30-second shots of a character doing nothing interesting, and amateurish post-production.
"Mean Streets" still teaches young filmmakers how to make a splash with a film. Unfortunately, it does not teach that lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place, and that you can't make much of an impact with somebody else's ideas. "Washington Heights" tries very hard to be faithful to the first lesson and to ignore the second, but Manny Perez is no Harvey Keitel, Danny Hoch is no Robert De Niro, and Alfredo De Villa is certainly no Martin Scorsese. 5 out of 10.
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